Chinese Dragon #4: ZBrush Setup, Layers

I was going to discuss ZBrush sculpting in this post, but I realised there might be some value in covering a little more about set up and preparing for export.

So I’d exported my base mesh as an obj. file from Lightwave and followed the steps in Steve Warner’s guide here pretty closely, as ZBrush doesn’t follow any of the standard windows conventions for just about any operation!

For the uninitiated, it can be a pretty daunting interface.

Saying that, once you go through the process a couple of times it becomes second nature, and you quickly get into sculpting which is quite intuitive.

ZBrush does all of its work by subdividing the bejingers out of your mesh, so the more detail you want, the more polygons you need to let it use. It has a pretty impressive capacity to deal with millions of polys, and it sets a limit based on your system’s capabilities which is really helpful.(going beyond it results in instability)

Thanks to Bump and Normal mapping when you export your work for rendering the detail can be managed more easily. I’m a big fan of Normal mapping, which gives a serious illusion of depth without needing any additional polygons. I haven’t looked into it too much but the only drawback is the maps aren’t exactly editable, using multiple colours to express depth:

ZBrush allows you to sculpt in non-destructive layers. Just like Photoshop you can turn layers on and off, or use them to try things out without messing stuff up.

The other thing that is nice about this is that you can turn them on and off to export different maps in different ways. So if you plan a little you can make things easier when you return to your output software.

And finally, because the rest of the post has been dry and technical here’s a pretty picture!

Chinese Dragon #3: ZBrush UV Mapping, do as I say not as I do…Msp

I looked at a couple of different ways to UV map the Chinese Dragon, though I was pretty keen to use ZBrush’s native mapper as I’d heard good things about it and I was keen to just get on with it.

The up side is it produces virtually distortion free UV maps at the push of a button, letting you get on with the artistic stuff.

The down side of this is that it produces maps that are difficult to work out if you want to edit them in Photoshop, with very few contiguous bits for easy painting. They look a little something like this:

Yup, blocky blockness! It’s great for use in ZBrush, where you don’t work directly with it at all really, not so hot if you want to tweak somewhere else.

The other thing you might notice is there’s a fair bit of empty space. ZBrush does its best to optimize, but when you’re making a very large map(4096 pixels square) every pixel counts. Especially if your dragon is 35m long and will have close ups!

ZBrush Tip: It’s worthwhile exporting your model with it’s new UV Map to see if you can make better use of the map real estate in your destination software before starting to sculpt in ZBrush.(even if I didn’t, *you* should!)

ZBrush also has a plugin UV mapper called UV Master which offers some very nice features, the standout being the ability to paint directly onto you model to define map regions and areas of higher detail. It’s also artist friendly in that the maps it produces are more recognisable. I gave it a spin for the mapping of my Dragon’s horns and even with the default settings gave quite nice results.

Chinese Dragons and the Great Software Wrangle!

It’s been a bit quiet here while I’ve been tangled up in other projects. Thankfully one of my clients has been kind enough to let me show off the work I’ve been doing with them.

The project is for an exhibit in Northern Tasmania to do with the Chinese Tin Miners who migrated there in the 1800’s. The exhibit uses animation and live action to tell a story around some of the migrants.

Among other things, I get to make a 3D animated Chinese ‘Tin’ Dragon.

I’m using 3 separate pieces of software, Lightwave, PMG Messiah and ZBrush. The process of getting those three working together has been a long one for me, as often you need to do some digging to find what you need to know and it was my first time using ZBrush.

So it goes a little something like this, initial modeling in Lightwave, rigging and animation in PMG Messiah, Texturing and additional detail modeling in ZBrush, final surfacing and rendering in Lightwave.

I’d sat on my copy of ZBrush for quite a while waiting for the opportunity to use it, never finding the time between other projects to play. I really regret that now as it’s the best thing since sliced bread.

ZBrush lets you take your low detailed 3D model and make it a highly detailed sculpture, which you can then export for animation etc. The interface is a little alienating at first, as it doesn’t follow the standard Windows way of working. I found this excellent guide by Steve Warner for getting Lightwave objects into and out of ZBrush, as well as how to get started in ZBrush itself. It’s a little out of date though, and I found I had to trawl both the ZBrush and lightwave forums to discover that some things had been streamlined and actually work better now.

Couple of tips….

Tip#1: Ensure your starting mesh has enough density to support the detail you create in ZBrush, even in places where you would usually reduce polygons for reasons of economy.

Tip#2: Install all the ZBrush plugins, they’re free and add some amazing capabilities to the arsenal, like being able to paint on a ZBrush ‘screen grab’ in Photoshop, then apply that painting in ZBrush.

ZBrush itself makes 3D modeling feel like sculpting and painting, it’s no wonder it’s become so popular.

So in the end I was able to go from the initial Lightwave model…


To this…

While we worked from statues and illustrations of Chinese Dragons, an important factor for me was to ensure it is a living animal. I took the view that the Chinese paintings and sculptures were an interpretation of reality, as if the artist had seen a Dragon and then tried to paint or sculpt what they’d seen flying past and the best we were getting was brief eye witness sightings. Otherwise I would just be making a moving statue, or a cartoon.

My paleoart dabblings led me to do things like add a caudofemoralis muscle, as well as ensuring as much of the anatomy as possible made sense and worked.

That’ll do for now, I’ll be back with a bit more on this project soon!

PS: I’m not sure how much technical information people might want about this process, so if you’re interested in knowing more pop me a question in the comments.